Gaming Gear: The Nintendo Switch Reviewed

It’s not everyday that we get a brand new video game console on our hands. In my time, it's only every five to ten years we get to have the new console experience, so I hold these times with some amount of reverence. The exciting moment of opening up a new gadget, and discovering what it has to offer is almost magical, fantasizing about the future it could provide on top of the new launch lineup games, like Christmas morning to me and grown kids everywhere. The Switch made a lot of big promises, and comes on the tail of a less than successful Nintendo console generation, so regardless of personal opinion, a lot is riding on the back of the Nintendo Switch.

Let us start with the basic stuff, shall we. The Switch is the newest console from the video game household name of Nintendo. For the first time in Nintendo’s storied history, and after learning a thing or two from 2012’s Wii U console, Nintendo decided to fully bridge their home console and mobile markets into one by producing a tablet-based mobile console that ‘switches’ to a fully-functional home console when placed in a dock. The primary portion of the Switch itself is a 6.2-inch capacitive multi-touch screen tablet, finally getting away from the stylus after several pieces of seemingly-outdated touch technology. Also in the box are two ‘Joy-Con’ controllers, a grip that the Joy-Con slide into for use, a dock for hooking up to the TV, and all the cables necessary to work out of the box. The Wii U had a tablet as well so this isn’t new territory for Nintendo, but what pleasantly surprised me was how modern and sleek the design was. Holding the tablet in your hands, it shares more design with the Kindle Fire than the plasticy Fisher-Price-esque Wii U gamepad.

The Joy-Con controllers are essentially two separate halves of a would-be ‘proper’ controller. They have the control features we come to expect with a modern console: Twin analog sticks, a D-pad, four face buttons, and 4 triggers. When playing as a mobile console, they slide into the sides of the tablet and lock in place. This allows a comfortable mobile console experience, something akin to a giant PSP, but with a sharp look playing on the 720p screen. It’s not ideal, but it can allow a beautiful mobile experience for between two and a half and four hours on a full charge, and will charge the Joy-Con even without power if need be. When not attached to the side of the tablet, the Joy-Con can be used separately in a Wiimote plus Nunchuck style in both hands, or can be slid into a grip that enables an experience closer to a classic controller. The grip is low tech, it doesn't serve a purpose outside of providing a controller shape, but its effective despite being simply a piece of injection-molded plastic. It’s not likely going to change your mind on controllers looking at the big picture, even when slid into the grip they don't feel quite as nice as the Dualshock 4 or Xbox One controller, but I nevertheless didn’t have too much of a problem using the Joy-Con Grip for countless hours without feeling uncomfortable. Unfortunately, the problem with the Joy-Con that was reported by early reviewers still occurred with my launch unit. It wasn't frequent, but from time to time the left Joy-Con’s signal would get some interference with the console and have a short term loss of connection, leading to my digital avatar to occasionally (and at times, humorously) run off the side of mountains. After some re-syncing of them and restarting the machine several times, the issue has mostly receded. I also noticed that the second set of Joy-Con I purchased never had this issue, so hopefully Nintendo will be able to have a fix for this problem that doesn't involve online troubleshooting.

The Joy-Cons are also usable individually, allowing for multiplayer on the go by turning them sidewise, giving access to a control stick and 6 buttons for each player. This is a neat feature and I am glad it's included, but not one I see myself using often personally. The individual Joy-Con are quite small, and even if i wasn’t a gentleman with meaty mitts, I would still feel like using one Joy-Con was a very cramped experience. The Joy-Con also have haptic and motion sensing technology in them, enabling a lot of active mini-games in the launch title 1-2-Switch, and continuing the legacy of the Wii’s innovation with motion control. This works in a strictly perfunctory fashion, and while 1-2-Switch was a title I was glad to pick up for multiplayer and party situations, nothing about the motion control aspect of the Switch appeals to me, and feels like an afterthought when playing on a console that is trying to be a handheld/home console convertible. Nintendo also offers a Pro Controller, but at this time I was unable to get my hands on one. It seems like a good alternative if your main goal is using the Switch as a traditional home console. There are several other hardware accessories available in addition to controllers, including a charging grip for the Joy-Con, a stand with similar functionality, and various other cases and accouterments. They are all fine and well, but a great way to get nickeled and dimed. I think the $300 price tag is totally fair for what is included in the box, but I still find it ridiculous that a pair of Joy-Con is $80- notably not including the grip- and the pro controller is $70. For someone like me it’s not unreasonable, but for a kid who wants to play with their friends, and knowing that a superior controller can be purchased from Microsoft for $60, the accessories’ price-points seem less than consumer friendly.

Hardware is only half the experience though. When you boot up the Switch for the first time you are greeted with a setup wizard and the kind of charming user experience I’ve come to expect from Nintendo. I am disappointed that there are no fun Bossa Nova beats on the eShop, but otherwise the Switch is full of well-designed menus, cute sound effects, and delightful musical queues. It is a little bare-bones at the moment, as is the online functionality, but I've found it to be a pleasant upgrade over the Wii and Wii U. There is no video streaming or virtual console available as of now, but Nintendo has promised these in the near future, and with Zelda available at launch, and countless other ways to play those classic titles, I don't count it against the Switch at launch.  I was excited to hear about the new online service, it sounded forward thinking and closer to the experiences I’ve had with Xbox Live and Playstation Plus, but in execution as of this moment it doesn't seem promising. Friend codes are back, once again putting users in a system that felt outdated and poorly thought out at its inception a decade ago. On top of that, when users request friends they just appear as nicknames and icons, offering very little filtering and identification. Who’s this guy name Steve with K.K. Slider as his icon? I know several Steves, a dozen maybe, and for all I know this is one of the scores of Steves I’ve never even met. I know that I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up considering Nintendo’s history with that stuff, but for once I would like to be surprised by how forward-thinking they are instead of disappointed in how backwards their views of the internet are. I'm not asking for cloud saves and a robust online service, just let me have basic online account functionality that has been a part of online game consoles for almost 10 years.

Finishing off the last few odds and ends feature-wise, following the trend of other modern consoles, the Switch is region free. I was able to quickly and easily make a Japanese Nintendo account, add it to my Switch, and get games right off the Japanese store without too much fuss. Sure, the menus aren’t in English and not all international credit cards work correctly, but most games have full english in them these days, and having the freedom of access to the Japanese game library is a neat, if a little nerdy and unnecessary. As a whole, I really have enjoyed my time with Switch so far. It's not perfect: The battery life is barely passable, the launch line-up is really light (Zelda is a masterpiece, but the rest is weak, more on that later), there are a handful of issues right out of the box, and the online service does not sound promising. Nonetheless I am very excited for a full console experience I can take on the go, and even more so by the prospect that I will be able to get all of my Nintendo favorites in one place.


-Justin Wicker